August 3, 2020
Dear Students, Faculty, Staff, and Alumni,
For the past few months, I have read, listened, and thought deeply about the experiences of racism and violence that Black students and alumni have shared, and which they endured across this country and also at Amherst. I have spoken before about the environment in which I grew up and the racism and violence that were endemic to it. I know how visceral and violent the belief in white supremacy can be. I have seen it first hand. I know how essential it is to many white people’s identities, even when its importance is unconscious and unacknowledged. Given what I have lived and what I have studied, I know there can be no neutrality about the fact of racism and no legitimate debate about the urgency of confronting it. It is time for me as a president, who is also white, to take stronger stands and to enlist the entire Amherst community in bolder efforts to make Amherst a truly equitable and inclusive place. For me, this is a time to transform what I know and what I have known into what I can do and what I can enlist you to do.
This summer has been another object lesson in how racism, particularly anti-Black racism, is woven into the fabric of the country. We have seen videos of the cold-blooded killings of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and Ahmaud Arbery by apparent vigilantes in Georgia. We learned of the fatal shooting of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor by Louisville police in her own home and the shooting of Tony McDade by police in Tallahassee, one of numerous killings of Black trans people. These killings show that a brutally racist past lives on in the present and that every one of us must do all we can to end it. The pandemic has also done its part to make the scourge of systemic racism undeniable, with its disproportionate impact on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities.
In this letter, I focus specifically on anti-Black racism, understanding that it has had a distinctive, very long, and deep-seated position and function in the economic, social, political, and moral history of the country. I recognize, too, that racism against Indigenous, Latinx, Muslim, Asian and Asian American people, xenophobia against people of other nationalities, and anti-Semitism are on the rise. These groups also experience the harm of discrimination and violence. The fight for greater justice and more truly democratic institutions has to be fought on all of these fronts, and at the points where they intersect, if the country and its colleges and universities are to make good on their ideals of freedom and equality.
For purposes of this communication, I feel an imperative to be as specific as possible about the impact that anti-Black prejudice and discrimination have on Black students, staff, faculty, and alumni, all the more so for those living at the intersections of other axes of discrimination—gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, nationality, ability and accessibility, to name a few. Ensuring the dignity, equity, and inclusion of all Black students requires a more nuanced and comprehensive approach than we have taken.
We will continue to see race and racism used as political tools. We may even hear that there are “good people on both sides“ of white supremacy, as a way of justifying and normalizing racist ideology and acts. In truth, there is only one legitimate response to the fact of anti-Black racism and the damage it inflicts. That response is opposition. And opposition requires that we take more intentional measures. We are a small college community with admirable aspirations and a history of leadership among our peers in educational excellence and in access and affordability. In 2016, the College was awarded the Jack Kent Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence for efforts to provide forms of support that go beyond financial aid to ensure that students from low-income backgrounds are able not only to succeed, but to thrive. Yet our historically predominantly white college still has a long way to go if we are to realize our promise of racial equity and shared ownership of the culture of the College. Those of us who love Amherst and the purposes of its strong liberal arts education can and should dedicate ourselves to more significant change. This letter ends by outlining some of the actions to which I and my colleagues are committed. With this message, I seek your active involvement and ideas.
Many of our students, alumni, faculty, and staff have already started to respond to the painful events of the summer by being part of the activism that has emerged across the country. They have also directed our attention to what they experience at Amherst. There are critical moments in history when the call for change is resounding. This is one of those moments.
John Lewis’s funeral service last week powerfully reinforced the importance of history, our responsibility to it, and the duties that come with an understanding of it—obligations that are personal, institutional, and national. Congressman Lewis was eulogized for his extraordinary courage, sacrifice, conviction, and activism, but also for his dignity, kindness, and commitment to truth. Lewis was celebrated for the way he comported himself as a human being in the ordinary moments of life as well as when marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The service itself showed how beauty and artistry, music, love of language and rhetoric, mentorship, and critical self-examination combine with activism and legislation to create a better world.
Institutions like Amherst stand for those virtues. The College has articulated the ideals of opportunity, intellectual rigor, equity, community, and contribution to the larger society; Amherst has sought, imperfectly, to hew to those values. We constantly strive and end up seeing more clearly both the failures in our journey and the never-ending challenges ahead. The willingness to see failures and gaps, especially our own, and to acknowledge them is core to our mission and the reason we value critical thinking in the pursuit of truth and democratic ideals.
In 2015, in the wake of the August 2014 killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, three Black women organized a gathering in Frost Library in support of students at the University of Missouri; what started as a brief show of support became the Amherst Uprising, a sit-in during which Black students spoke of their experiences of racism and inequity to an audience of hundreds of faculty, staff, and students. We heard their stories and learned that equity and inclusion require a great deal more of us; in response to demands for change, the College put a number of additional programs and measures in place aimed at achieving the promise of educational equity. Those pedagogical, curricular, academic policy, and administrative changes have enhanced the quality of our education for every student and have inspired pedagogical and curricular innovation on the part of our dedicated faculty.
Despite our efforts over time, serious gaps remain. Our students and alumni see failures and hypocrisy in our celebrations of diversity when full dignity, equity, and inclusion remain unrealized. The entire community needs to dig deeper to understand and uproot the underlying structural causes of the inequities that Black alumni and current students continue to experience. Amherst’s excellence requires this. There is no other way to make good on our promise.
Appended to this letter are some of the actions we will take to ensure a more excellent Amherst. I offer special thanks to Chaka Laguerre ’08 for a letter she wrote to me in June on behalf of Black alumni and our subsequent exchanges; the Black Students Union and the contributors to the Instagram site BlackAmherstSpeaks; and the dozens of students who, in the spirit of John Lewis, have helped create a better Amherst. Recognizing the tremendous amount of labor this has demanded of you, the College is grateful for your work and is the better for it.
In letters, social media posts, and conversations, these and many other Black students and alumni state that they have had exhausting, demoralizing, and sometimes debilitating experiences at Amherst. They feel that most of us do not fully grasp this fact or understand its systemic roots, raising questions that everyone in our community will want to ask themselves.
Black students and alumni contend with the exhaustion from daily experiences at Amherst and beyond of stereotype threat, outright prejudice, implicit and explicit bias, exclusion, discrimination, and sometimes violence. They do not see themselves in the leadership of the College, in the majority of the faculty, or in the ranks of the staff. Representation matters, as does mentorship and the creativity, knowledge, and intelligence that comes from more diverse teams. One consequence of the low representation of Black staff, faculty, and administrators is the work it adds to those who are underrepresented.
Alumni and students describe the invisibility felt in some of their classes when they made points that were passed over, only to have white students credited with the same offering. At the same time, Black students are faced with a painful hypervisibility when asked to speak for an entire race when issues of race and racism come up. Consider a faculty member who feels license to criticize a Black student’s hairstyle, or students and another faculty member who repeatedly confuse the only two Black students in a class. One of our alumni described the pain of low expectations from a faculty member who claimed that “some groups” are not cut out for a particular discipline, and another recalled an advisor who suggested there was no point in applying to the best medical schools.
There is excellent scholarly writing on the bias implicit in that now infamous query about why “all the Black kids sit together in the cafeteria.” Yet, our Black students and alumni have heard these questions from white people who seem oblivious to the fact that members of predominantly or exclusively white groups gather together without any racial diversity and see no need to ask themselves what role a tacit white identity plays in their choices. Black students, alumni, and scholars face attacks for their “focus on identity” and “identity politics,” even as their white critics take for granted the privilege that white identity confers, including the assumption that whiteness is an unmarked category.
Black members of our community also see too little genuine curiosity about their experiences and perspectives and too little awareness of the way white privilege works. While the open curriculum permits students unparalleled opportunity to explore their own interests, it also allows them to avoid uncomfortable subject matter and engagement with material that is unfamiliar to them. In the absence of any requirement that students, faculty, and staff know something substantive about the centrality of anti-Black racism to the history of the country and its institutions, we fail not only our Black students, but every student who studies at Amherst and then goes out to assume responsibility in society. We who are white are being asked to recognize that our knowledge and views of the world are partial, in both senses of the word, all the more so if we have not done the work of understanding how we are implicated in a very long and brutal history of systemic racism, and then doing something about its present incarnations.
All our students deserve to walk safely through the campus, the town, and anywhere else, without fear. But many Black people learn from an early age that fear is warranted because of racial profiling and anti-Black violence. The experience of fear and insecurity is even more present for Black women who have spoken and written about the ways in which they are treated sexually in social environments on campus. We will continue to raise awareness and address sexual harassment and assault in ways that create a safer and more respectful environment for students. We will also incorporate Black feminist speakers into our on-campus programming and events to increase awareness of these issues. There are students and alumni who report experiences of profiling and differences in the way their social events and parties have been monitored and restricted, compared to other groups. In light of this fact and informed by our commitment to an inclusive campus, Chief of Police John Carter, in consultation with members of the senior staff, has taken stock of the overreliance by the College on our police officers for duties that could and should be part of our student affairs function. The College traditionally has limited the presence of student affairs staff in the residence halls and on campus after regular business hours, making campus police the primary interface with students. Black and brown people in this society live with the knowledge that they have only so many degrees of freedom and cannot let down their guards in the way that white people can. To say these experiences are corrosive is to vastly understate the case.
When Black students and alumni protest the harm they experience at Amherst, they sometimes receive strong criticism from people who accuse them of failing to show appropriate gratitude, as though it should be good enough for them that they are present, regardless of what they experience and despite our promise of a diversity of people who co-create the culture of the College. Some critics fail to understand how student and alumni critiques have helped make institutions like Amherst better. Some apparently assume the institution belongs only to them, those who have historically predominated. The expectation of gratitude in this context gives the lie to any pretense of inclusiveness or shared ownership. And it fails to recognize that the diversity of people, experience, and thought has made Amherst a better place for everyone.
The alumni letter and ReclaimAmherst, a statement signed by BSU members and contributors to #BlackAmherstSpeaks made available on social media almost two weeks ago, both open by avowing their love of the College and proceed by offering a set of priorities that will make it worthier of that love. The list below is responsive to a number of their priorities. We look forward to working with them and all members of the community going forward.
In closing, let me thank everyone in the Amherst community in advance for participating in the work that must be done and for your commitment to Amherst’s continuing leadership in liberal arts education. Over a hundred years ago Amherst President Alexander Meiklejohn predicted that the country would have achieved racial equality by the time the College reached its bicentennial. The country is far from achieving it. Let’s seize this moment to do what must be done.
The Anti-Racism Plan is available on our website. On each of its nineteen measures, we will report back to the community on our progress in three months, again at six months, and annually thereafter.
It is essential that we acknowledge the harm that our Black students and alumni have experienced, numerous instances but certainly not all of which I have conveyed in the previous section. I deeply regret the extent and depth of racist harassment, discrimination, threats, psychological and physical pain that so many have suffered at the College for much too long.
To our Black students and alumni, on behalf of the College and in my role as its current president, I offer you an apology for the harm you have experienced here and for having not made more progress. In 2015, in the wake of the Amherst Uprising, you requested that I apologize for the ways the College has fallen short and reproduced the oppressive inequalities of the society as a whole over the course of its history. I explained why I considered an apology of that sort to be a kind of arrogance, an assertion of a degree of control and authority that does not accurately reflect an institutional culture that so highly values shared governance. Amherst has reflected a much larger world of systemic racism, as all institutions have. But I have been challenged and have challenged myself to remember, and to comprehend, that too often white people deny responsibility for what they see as the sins of the past without recognizing how those sins live in the present, how systemic they are, and how much we who are white benefit from them, whether consciously and willfully or not. Against that backdrop, I offer you, our Black alumni and students, our recognition that the realities of structural racism in the United States have shaped our educational institutions, including Amherst, and my deep sorrow about the toll your negative experiences at Amherst have taken.